Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Silvetown Explosion, where, on the evening of January 19th 1917, 50 tonnes of trinitrotoluene exploded after efforts to extinguish a fire in one of the factory melt pots failed. The explosion killed 73 people, injured more than 400 and instantly destroyed an estimated 900 properties with a further 60,000 having sustained some damage.
In 1917, the London School of Tropical Medicine was located in the Albert Dock Seamen’s Hospital in the London Docklands and as a result, the explosion damaged the School. Florence Hanbury, the School’s first library assistant, noted in her diary ‘The Silvertown explosion shattered the windows in the Printing Room, but did not damage the Library’. Hanbury’s description of the damage suggests the School sustained minimal damage, yet in Sir Philip Manson-Bahr’s memoir of the School’s history, he writes:
‘All the windows were broken and the floors were littered with powdered glass. A large number of casualties were carried into the Hospital and School by rescue workers until every available space was full to capacity. Nurses and medical staff alike worked like Trojans and earned universal praise. A squad, led by Major C.H. Barber, I.M.S., who was himself a patient at the time, rushed out to the scene of the disaster and rendered heroic services.’
Manson-Bahr also wrote that Robert Mackay, one of the School’s first Laboratory Assistant who worked at the school for nearly 30 years, was at the School at the time of the explosion, an event that, ‘shook him greatly’.
Fortunately, the School did not record any casualties and, due largely in part to time of the explosion, the number of casualties were relatively low as there were few people were working in the area.
Two years after the explosion, the School eventually moved to the Seamen’s Hospital in Endsleigh Gardens and later to its current site in Keppel Street in 1929.
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Feature image: Courtesy of the Museum of London.